ALANG, India — For the ship formerly known as the Exxon Valdez, evensailing quietly into the sunset is proving difficult. Now called the Oriental Nicety, it's floating off India in a kindof high-seas limbo as a court decides whether the vessel thatdumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska's unspoiledPrince William Sound in 1989 can be hacked apart in this forlorngraveyard for once-mighty ships. Local environmentalists have petitioned the High Court here in thewestern state of Gujarat to block its entry pending an onboardinspection for toxic chemicals, including mercury, arsenic andasbestos. FOR THE RECORD: This report identifies Muhammad Ali Shahin as an activist with theBangladeshi environmental group Platform on Shipbreaking. |
He is isa Bangladeshi activist with the group, which is based in Brussels. Environmentalists acknowledge it's probably no more toxic than somany other ships recycled at Alang, a city whose coastline was onceedged with forest and is now lined with about 175 ramshackle yardspulling vessels apart. But they say the standoff focuses attentionon India's lax environmental, labor and safety standards governingthe billion-dollar ship-breaking industry. "The ex-Exxon Valdez is a test case for the robustness of India'sregulatory framework," activist Gopal Krishna of ToxicsWatchAlliance wrote in a court filing.
In an industry that benefits from cheap labor, "they want to dropthe problem on the poor people of India," said Jim Puckett,Seattle-based head of the Basel Action Network activist group. Dharamveer Sharma, 45, landed here from Bihar state. As he cutapart flammable oil cylinders with oxyacetylene torches at a yard,he said he lives in constant fear. "But I need the money," he said.
"One day I'll quit and go backhome and the memories of this place will haunt me." The scene on Alang's 6-mile-long beach seems the stuff ofnightmares. Because of a 38-foot tidal variation, vessels meetingtheir end can sail straight onto its sand, no need for expensivedocks. About 35,000 migrant workers, human vultures of a sort, thenhack at carcasses that soon resemble half-eaten whales. Moving inland, yard upon yard is filled with items from aircraftcarriers, cruise ships and other floating cities, including1970s-era Pac-Man game consoles, dinner plates, sofas, lockers andhalf-used soy sauce bottles.
What's not easily sold off is chopped up for scrap metal in thisworld of Victorian squalor. In a lot beside an asbestos treatmentcenter, a worker sat in the dirt bashing at ship instruments, toxicsmoke from burning transistors curling around him, surrounded bypiles of wire and glass. The Oriental Nicety's most recent owner, Alang-based scrap companyPriya Blue, says it is confident of a favorable ruling soon on theship's fate. If not, or if the legal limbo drags on too long, itmay divert the ship to Bangladesh or Pakistan.
Both neighboring countries have similar laws against importingtoxic material, although ships are often brought in illegally. "We'll fight it if we learn it's happening," said Muhammad Ali Shahin, an activist with the Bangladeshi environmental groupPlatform on Shipbreaking. A partner at Priya Blue stood up for the infamous vessel. "We are110% sure the ship is safe," Sanjay P. Mehta said.
An injuredperson who heals is considered healthy, he said. "It's the samewith the Exxon Valdez. The spill happened a long time back. It'snot hazardous." A 2006 study commissioned by India's Supreme Court found 16% ofships broken apart here had asbestos traces.
"I can't say wehaven't had [ tuberculosis ] or deaths, just not an epidemic," said B.N. Singh, a ship safetyofficer and union official, who says at least the fibers remain wetin the surf. "Whether workers survive or die in their village, noone knows." Alang's yards have had a record year, scrapping more than 400 shipsin 2011-12, an end-of-life business that often flourishes when theeconomy slumps. "We're the undertakers," said Yogesh Rehani, managing director ofMaryland's Global Marketing Systems, which sends dead ships toAlang.
Rehani bid for the Oriental Nicety not knowing its history but lostout to Priya Blue, which reportedly paid $16 million — a lossthat was a lucky break for Global Marketing, given the legalstandoff.
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